A British man suspected of orchestrating one of the most brazen cocaine trafficking shipments to Europe in recent years told a French court Tuesday that his bragging about it was "just a script."
Robert Dawes, 46, has been on trial since last week over the 2013 seizure of 1.3 tonnes of cocaine in an Air France plane shortly after it landed at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport from Caracas.
He was arrested in a dawn raid at his luxury resort in Benalmadena, Spain, in November 2015 after Spanish police filmed a conversation at a hotel in Madrid where Dawes claimed ownership of the drugs.
Soon after he was extradited to Paris, and since then his defence teams have tried to have the video recording dismissed as evidence on legal technicalities.
But during six hours of questioning Tuesday, Dawes surprised the judges -- and evidently his own lawyers -- by saying the claim was only a ploy to end what he called heavy-handed surveillance by Spanish police, by getting himself arrested.
"That was all a script," a close-cropped Dawes, wearing faded jeans and a long sleeve black and grey T-shirt, told the specially composed court consisting only of judges.
"I spoke about airports, shipping ports, like I was involved in something," Dawes said of his meeting with a Colombian associate, Fernando Cepeda.
Asked if he knew there was a microphone hidden in a nearby plant, Dawes said: "That's why I told Cepeda on the telephone three times, sit in the same place!"
- Stuffed in 30 suitcases -
But he reiterated he had no involvement in the Air France shipment, which was stuffed in 30 unregistered suitcases and had a street value of some 240 million euros ($275 million).
"The facts don't lie in this case, I've no connection with these people," he said of the two other Britons and three Italians also on trial.
Nathan Wheat and Kane Price were arrested after undercover officers tricked them into trying to transport some of the cocaine to Italy shortly after its arrival in September 2013.
Marco Panetta, Vincenzo Aprea and Carmine Russo were also arrested in the operation.
"I know in my heart that I'm not involved in this crime," Dawes said.
Asked why he had stayed three years behind bars, while his wife and three children remained in Spain, without telling investigators the claim was fake, Dawes said his lawyers had advised silence while appealing the video's admissibility.
His surprising new evidence came after the state prosecutor announced that his defence team had submitted a forged document trying to prove that Spanish police had no legal authority to make the surveillance video.
Asked how the document came into his possession, Dawes appeared not to understand his translator, answering only that if he had access to the full Spanish findings he could "prove my innocence".
Dawes, from a town outside Nottingham, central England, has a long record of convictions since his teenage years, but has never been found guilty of drug trafficking charges.
- 'Just chit-chat' -
After years of investigations, however, police believe he became one of the largest drug importers to Europe, with alleged links to the Italian mafia and South American cartels.
At the time of his arrest, Spanish police said Dawes "headed up the biggest criminal organisation in Britain and Europe devoted to drug trafficking, money laundering and murder".
He is also accused of buying large amounts of drugs from Italy's secretive 'Ndrangheta mafia, which is thought to run much of Europe's cocaine trade from Calabria.
But Dawes said Tuesday that he and his family had been successful with a variety of businesses in Spain, including furniture and window manufacturing, management consulting and property investments.
That gave him ample opportunity to travel and make contacts, some of who featured in other recordings secured by Spanish police suggesting Dawes' involvement in deals involving huge amounts of cash.
Asked about one recording in which Dawes discusses a real estate deal in Colombia, he said "it was just chit-chat."
The verdict is expected Friday.